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The UK's War Against Internet Trolling

Where is the line between trolling and freedom of expression?

10Oct

Internet trolls are an unfortunate part of life on the internet. Some of them are relatively harmless, whereas others pose a serious threat to both individuals and businesses. The situation has escalated to being life threatening in the most severe cases, so the UK's Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced it's going to tackle the problem with tough measures, and Scotland Yard will set up a £1.7 million 'troll-hunting unit'.

Unlike cyber threats, where relevant cyber security methods can be put in place, little can be done against trolls. The core problem lies in psychology rather than in technology. The internet troll is usually a person who deliberately posts offensive content on the internet, in order to start a conflict, insult, provoke, or humiliate the online community. Most of the time 'trolling' happens for one's entertainment, but there have already been cases where online bullying led to suicides or irreversible damage to companies' reputation. The CPS has issued a new guidance to make it clear that online defamation will be punished with a real prison sentence.

The prosecution body is not going to track every person who may have posted a rude comment. However, everything that falls in the category 'grossly offensive' will be heard in court. The problem had been hard to deal with because it's extremely difficult to draw the line between freedom of expression and content that can be truly dangerous. Considering that social media has been around for only a decade, online ethics was not taught in schools, nor was it actively promoted.

One of the internet codes is called netiquette which is a guidance of how online users should treat each other when socializing, and what shapes a healthy social network: 'Accepting that the laws which are currently in place to protect the rights and dignity of citizens apply online and that where needed, laws are updated to reflect these rights in the extended environment. Theft online is still theft, stalking, bullying, harassing, tormenting online is still abusive.' However, the guidance doesn't seem to be working effectively enough.

In July, trolling went horribly wrong when a man faced jail for the second time after his online misbehavior. John Nimmo threatened the UK's Labour MP Luciana Berger via email, where he made antisemitic statements and told the MP she would 'get it like Jo Cox', referring to the murder case of the Labour MP Jo Cox, which happened one month earlier. The 'troll' was previously sentenced to 2 months in 2014 for attacking feminist campaigners on Twitter.

Why do trolls exist?

Trolling involves a wide range of abusive comments and actions. Comments can be limited to harmless spamming, but can also be in the form of doxing, for example, when a troll takes someone's personal information to the online public, so the person can be targeted.

Most of the time, when trolls' threaten their victims, it doesn't go outside the digital space, but in some cases, an online insult can be enough to ruin the business's reputation or cause depression. Mostly it happens for one's entertainment and as a way of propagandizing extreme views, where trolls' defensive point usually falls under the right to freedom of expression.

According to the online reputation management firm Igniyte, more than half ofBritish firms have been the victims of trolling. Biased criticism, spam, and insulting can cost a fortune to deal with to recover one's reputation. The process of dealing with the abuse has seen UK companies spending thousands of pounds using legal measures, social media managers/administrators, and external reputation management agencies.

It doesn't take a scientist to distinguish a troll from a customer's complaint. Most of the time, the language they use is highly provocative and insulting. People become victims once they reply to trolls, therefore the main advice is - never feed the trolls. Instead of replying with anger or trying to explain the situation, it's worth trying to laugh it off. Also, trolls can be disarmed by simply ignoring, and will go away to bug someone else. However, if the situation escalates and a troll can be potentially harmful, businesses and individuals shouldn't hesitate to seek legal protection. Popular social media sites also offer reporting functionality where abusive and offensive behavior can be reported, which is a cheaper and often more effective route. 

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